Frozen Lines Cited In Falcon 9 Upper Stage Mishap

By Amy Butler
Source: AWIN First
November 22, 2013
Credit: SpaceX

Frozen igniter fluid lines were to blame for the failure of an upper-stage restart during the first Falcon 9 v1.1 launch on Sept. 29.

Officials at Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), manufacturer of the rocket, did not detect the problem during ground tests because “ambient air kept the lines warm,” says Emily Shanklin, a spokeswoman for the company. It is unclear whether thermal testing was conducted. “We’ve added insulation and made sure that cold oxygen can’t impinge on the lines” in future missions, she says.

The Canadian payload reached its orbit during the Sept. 29 launch, allowing the company to declare the mission a success, but the restart attempt exposed a problem not previously seen in testing.

The upper-stage restart was a risk-reduction exercise in preparation for the Nov. 25 launch of SES-8, during which the system must work properly to deliver the payload to its geostationary orbit. This will be the first attempt to delivery payload into that high orbit, which is in demand given most communications providers operate there, as well as the U.S. Air Force.

SES-8 will be followed closely by another Falcon 9 v1.1 launch to geostationary orbit, this time for a Thai communications satellite.

The failure was the result of a “pretty straightforward error,” according to Barry Matsumori, vice president of commercial sales and business development. He spoke Nov. 14 at Aviation Week’s A&D Programs conference in Phoenix. The additional insulation did not require requalification work, he said. SES has already fueled the spacecraft, signaling confidence in readiness of the Falcon 9 v1.1 for the mission, he added. He said the Thaicom launch will follow one month after the SES mission.

Success of the upper stage is critical for SpaceX to capture the kind of business that company founder Elon Musk has been after. The company has long sought to unseat United Launch Alliance (ULA), which builds and operates the Atlas V and Delta IV family of rockets, as the sole source of launch boosters for the Pentagon, NASA and the intelligence community.

As such, the company is undergoing a rigorous process to get certified to compete with ULA for such missions. Certification, however, requires three successful Falcon 9 v1.1 launches, two of which must be consecutive. Also included is a rigorous review of the company’s technical data and engineering and technical processes.

SpaceX officials have said the Sept. 29 launch is the first of the three required for Air Force certification. The Air Force, however, has not confirmed this and officials there say they are continuing to analyze data from the mission to determine its eligibility.

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